Back to the book

by Guest Blogger, 29 September 2017
Danish publishing director Anders Hassing engaged with the #TextbooksCount debate, driven by Tim Oates' work, on social media and we invited him to write a guest blog about whether he sees a future for textbooks.

Anders Hassing profile photo 250x250 Is it necessary to read a book? It may sound like an odd question, and the answer from a publisher will hardly come as a surprise.  Nevertheless, it is a question that is often raised in debates about digitalization in general and about its impact on education in particular. Tim Oates’ comparative studies on the learning outcomes of high quality textbooks is a very welcome and even sobering contribution to this debate in Denmark, as well as in Britain.

Discussions about digital media in education have a polarizing tendency. Participants have a habit of placing each other in futile positions of either/or. But there is hardly a teacher in Denmark who never use digital media in class. Most probably do it on a daily basis when they show presentations, films and quizzes, when students use search engines, do presentations on their own and when they collaborate and share information online. What that does not mean, however, is that textbooks should be substituted with websites.

When it comes to adoption of digital learning materials in education, Denmark is outstanding in the Nordic countries and possibly in the world. A main driver in this regard has been heavy government refunds to schools buying digital learning resources. This can be seen as an interesting experiment on a large scale of which the long-term effects remain to be seen and documented.

But we have hints. Our feedback from educators who have switched 100 percent from linear, print textbooks to what in reality is an intranet of certified websites is that both pupils and teachers tend to adopt new and different strategies. Pupils browse through fragmented text passages that are produced with the intention of being read on their own without a known before and after. Pupils are often expected to answer questions, which they do by using the online resources as a reference they can skim.

What is the learning outcome of that? Well, hopefully, they find answers to their questions. At the same time, however, I fear they miss the opportunity to train long-term immersion where you follow an argument within a specific subject matter in a linear, didactically structured progression with a minimum of distractions. Exactly what Tim Oates found as key features in high quality education materials. The diffused online universe also falls short of visualizing what Tim Oates calls the domain of the subject, that is the content and limits of e.g. math, history or economics as a defined and limited area of study. And how do we develop our own language and ability to reflect and argue on a rational basis if all we are exposed to is fragmented texts (and polarizing one-liners) online?

I strongly believe in a future for book-style, linear, explanatory learning materials that may come in print as well as digital formats. They must, of course, be supplemented with all kinds of interactive and collaborative resources in the digital format. But we must not make the mistake of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I think we should be grateful to Tim Oates for his evidence-based highlighting of this point.

Anders Hassing
Publishing Director, Columbus

Columbus is a Copenhagen-based publisher of print and digital education materials. Anders has an MA in History and Political Science from The University of Copenhagen and worked as a teacher in upper secondary education in for 10 years prior to becoming a publisher. He is also the author of textbooks on theory and methods in social science and history.

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